What’s wrong with the Kerala church?

Kerala Church

Quite a lot, and the rot in the system is spreading fast and furious. But can the new Church bill help control it?

On February 16, a local court in Kerala sentenced Christian priest Robin Vadakkumchery to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment. The priest was accused of raping and impregnating a minor girl in Kottiyoor in North Kerala’s Kannur district. The court fined the clergyman Rs 3 lakh as well. The case caused much infamy to Kerala’s Christian church, especially to the influential Roman Catholic community that tag itself to the Vatican.

The history of Kerala’s churches shows that this is not an isolated incident as officials of the church and the clergy claim. In the past two years, over a dozen priests were accused of committing sex abuse.  Just recently, another case, this time involving a Bishop, erupted, triggering a debate that went beyond the usual elements. Franco Mulakkal, a Bishop of Latin Catholic Church in Jalandhar, was accused of raping a Catholic nun over a dozen times during 2014-16. The Bishop was stripped of his stars, and is currently out on bail. A few months ago in 2018, another scandal broke out after reports said four priests — this time from the more niche but powerful Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church — allegedly raped and blackmailed a woman over a period of a whopping 20 years.

Christian clout

Christians account for nearly 18 percent of Kerala’s 3.5 crore population. The church is an immensely influential factor in the socio-political and cultural scenes of the God’s Own Country. And accusations against its loyalists generally meet with stringent opposition. In fact, Mulakkal’s case is a classic example of how the Church responds to charges against its ‘revered’ figures. Just recently, a 60-year-old nun who happens to be a witness in the sexual abuse case against Mulakkal, reportedly was asked by her authorities to withdraw her statement to the police. The nun had to seek help from the court. In fact, it was a group of nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation who paved the way for the Bishop’s arrest after they bravely held protests demanding Mulakkal be nabbed.  

The issue later snowballed into a huge controversy, especially after the State government dilly-dallied on arresting the accused high-priest. The government’s reluctance, however obscene it appeared, was understandable considering the clout the Catholic Church — which runs thousands of enterprises, from schools, colleges, hospitals to financial services institutions and entertainment centres — commands in Kerala’s polity. The clergy is closely associated with political leaders of all hues and the church is known for its carefully worded statements that can swing the fortunes of political parties.

Hence, it needs quite a leap of faith to think such incidents will make the Church introspect and take remedial measures. But signs are that the community of believers, despite the fact that a large chunk of them have fallen for the propaganda pumped by the Church, have started asserting their rights, demanding more transparency in the way the church and its organisations, including the nunneries, function. For instance, in September 2018, the vicar of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Wayanad scrapped a disciplinary action he had initiated against Lucy Kalapura, a nun who backed protests against rape-accused Franco Mulakkal, after more than 250 parishioners stormed the church in support of the nun and forced the priest to chew the disciplinary action.

Interestingly, Church’s history shows that the laity cannot penetrate the power centres deep enough, but the way Pope Francis and several other leaders have been trying to wedge in a new culture of humility and transparency into the affairs of the church holds some promise to the Kerala chapter as well. Conversely, a few months ago, the Pope convened what analysts called an extraordinary summit of bishops in Rome to discuss the sex scandals that have hit the Roman Catholic Church across the globe. It is learnt that the Pope is under pressure to walk the talk and might even introduce a circular on the issue of sex offences by priests.

But that’s easier said than done. The way the Church is organised makes it easy for erring priests to prey around and their backers to cover their offenses. The Church is structured like a cadre party, where activities of each member of the herd is monitored and guided by the respective parish, which in turn is run by the Foranas and then the diocese, which reports to the Vatican. Other churches too have similar structures and most of them enjoy immense impunity  thanks to their Constitutional privileges in countries such as India. One of the best ways to start cleansing the erring priest is to bring them to the laws of the land without delay. It is not enough to strip them of clerical duties because such offenders will find other lucrative avenues to continue their pursuits unabated.

Which is why the Draft Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill 2019 gains importance today. It has the potential to change the way churches function in the State, making it more accountable to the systems and processes of the land.

A contentious bill

Several factions of the Kerala church have already ridiculed the draft bill by saying it is aimed at demolishing their institutions and social infrastructure. They say it is a ploy by the government to bring the religious groups under a Christian “Devaswom-Board” (the overseeing government body for Hindu temples). Kerala Law Reforms Commission headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice KT Thomas prepared the bill, which according to its architects aims to ensure fair and transparent administration of the properties and funds of the churches in Kerala.

As things stand now, every Church has the right to own properties and raise funds via various means, such as membership subscriptions, donations and contributions. These accounts are not necessarily subjected to public or government audit. The Church and its institutions enjoy unparalleled freedom and flexibility in terms of keeping their books. Now parishes have to maintain accounts that can be audited by third parties. The government may constitute a Tribunal to solve disputes relating to church’s administration or use of the funds. And the Tribunal will have the final word on such matters.

Last week, the Law Commission planned a meeting in Kottayam to take suggestions on the draft but opposition from the Kerala Catholic Bishop Council (KCBC) and the Joint Christian Council forced it to dump the event.

The Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) of the Syro Malabar Church is planning state-wide protests against the bill. The Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council says it suspect that the bill aims to “transfer the governing of the church properties and institutions from church authorities to the government.”

In all likelihood, the issue of the autonomy of Kerala churches and the way the clergy gets embroiled in sexual offences are going to rock the southern state in the days to come, especially considering that 2019 is going to see the General Elections in which the vote-bank prowess of the Christian churches will indeed play a pivotal role.

ENDS

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